Saturday, January 30, 2010

Duval Uncorked

The Saturday evening event was Duval Uncorked. Duval Street is the main walking-shopping-gallery-club-restaurant street in Key West, and this event opened it all up. Dozens of restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops welcomed Festival participants with small plates and endless wine.

Don't be spooked; the gentleman above is a mannequin in the Banana Republic shop, not a decapitated local. There were three starting points along the Duval Street route, and you could be drunk before you get a fraction of the way through. We began after sunset at Mallory Square.

Restaurants gave out tastes from their own menus, maybe a little dish of ceviche or pasta, chicken salad with chutney, empanadas, bruschetta or nachos, and a shot-sized serving of wine, or microbrewery beer, or appletini. At first, it was a lot like attending a wedding that was moving along an escalator. Later, it felt like we were in an adult trick-or-treating universe. I'd go up to the door and say "uncorked". They'd send me to the back as though I'd uttered the password in a speakeasy. Then they'd be disappointed unless I ate and drank too much.

You'd go into a fussy gallery and look at the label of the wine they'd specially picked. Then you'd amble across the street to a club and have a blue jello shot with two transvestites who'd make Cher look plain. We went from tasting everything, to giving up on drinking (there were cross-streets and traffic involved), to eating only every other opportunity, to sneaking a peek instead of a taste and ducking in for ice cream and the end of eating. Even the ice cream shop was giving out shot-sized portions of wine-flavored sorbet.

By eight o'clock, the food orgy was over. But this is Key West. I suppose that this was the time for everyone to go out to eat and then get really drunk. Sunday morning will be quiet, I'm sure.

Coconut Bowling at Blue Heaven

You might think that a coconut is round. You'd change your mind if you tried to bowl with one.

The restaurant Blue Heaven sponsored a coconut bowling contest all afternoon. The idea is to roll a coconut down a dirt lane, to knock over a bunch of fake pineapples. I don't know how many frames were involved, but the winning score at the contest I saw was 17, so obviously it isn't so easy.

The bowling coconuts were painted brightly, which didn't help them slide, although maybe it was a little easier to watch them not slide. You can see the standing pineapple pins that are the destination of this coconut on the left. The pins on the right have been knocked down by another skilled coconut bowler. Alongside the festivities, a man with a machete was cutting coconuts and grilling them up.

The Art of Food Photography

Today's seminar (at the Grand CafĂ© on Duval Street) taught us about photographing food. The idea is that the photo should make your mouth water, even if it means covering dried-out meat with syrup to make it glow again, and securing delectables in just the right spot with silly-putty. Just because you want to eat your work doesn't mean you should go ahead and do it.

Photographing food isn't all that different from any still life, so there's probably a lot to learn from any photography textbook. Similarly, placing the food on plates and surrounding it to make it look great would also help with any food presentation, when you're serving food and not taking pictures of it. Except for the syrup and the silly-putty.

Someone who takes photos of food for a living might spend hours tweaking the light around the objects. Chrome utensils in the shot are pesky, because they reflect everything, including the photographer. I was surprised to learn that the best way to photograph food is to have the primary light source behind it, so as to create shadows in the front of the scene.

This picture is a kind of Escher look (or Norman Rockwell?) at the seminar. It's a photo of someone taking a photo of food, and someone else (the festival photographer) taking a photo of the person taking photos of the food and participants in the seminar. Meanwhile, we're all taking photos of them.

I looked at the equipment being used by the festival photographer -- a huge zoom lens with a hood, a reflector, a diffuser, and more. Together it was like picking up a bowling ball. I particularly liked it when a participant asked a professional about how to set his pocket digital camera manually. The photographer's answer: "Don't ask me; I have no idea how to use those cameras."

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Secrets of a Champagne Brunch

This seminar took us through the preparation of a champagne brunch. Naturally, eggs benedict were a central part of the menu.

We realized right away that we shouldn't have eaten lunch. A buffet was set out for us on the deck at the Shor Restaurant at the Hyatt, including eggs benedict (with a lesson on preparation), crab benedict (with a  shorter lesson) and yellowtail snapper panini with aioli (with an eeny-beeny lesson.)

Mimosas and champagne flowed as well, and there was a dessert tray. The main lesson from the demonstration is that champagne is in all of the dishes, from the poaching water for the eggs to the Hollandaise, to the marinade for the shucked oysters.

The part of the cooking demo that you don't usually get was the ice carving, which took about half of the time alloted to the presentation. I was surprised to see that:
  • The person who does the carving that you'll see in a restaurant is quite often the chef or kitchen staff, not some ice carving specialist
  • They call the first part of the process, the part where you use a chainsaw, the "safety cuts". Ha.
  • It probably isn't as easy as it looks to carve a giant block of ice on a patio in 80-degree Key West sunshine.

A more sensible approach to conch

My better half made a wiser meal decision, still involving conch. His choice was a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, accompanied by conch chowder. The chowder was spicy and thick, though a gust of seaside wind blew the last several tablespoons overboard before he could finish. He filled the gap by sneaking a few bites of my conch nibbles.

At the Key West Food & Wine Festival

It's the first annual Key West Food & Wine Festival, and I arrived on the second day. I've already missed yesterday's events, but there's plenty to come.

There's a $100 pass that gives you access to many of the events and most of the seminars over the four-day period. We wanted to get here in time for a 1:00 seminar on Friday. First, we went to lunch, at Dante's.

Here's my operating philosophy about eating local food when traveling around. Unless you're living somewhere for a month, don't be on a diet. Key West is the Conch Republic. There aren't that many ways to prepare conch, and the one I picked is very decadent. It's called cracked conch (pronounced CONK, never con-ch), and I assume that the cracking has to do with breaking the shell. So I think of it as conked conch.

Conch is the perfect example of a food to let someone else prepare. I'm not too good at peeling away the skin and keeping the good part of the meat. By the time I get the animal from whole to peeled, it goes from the size of a banana to the size of a peanut.

Cracked conch reminds me that I could eat a rubber band if you battered it and then deep-fried it. In fact, it kind of tastes like a fried rubber band. Not fine cuisine. Fun cuisine.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A few initial thoughts

Merging food and travel is a great pleasure, and I'd like to share some of my travel and eating philosophy.

There's a limit to how much I should eat (I'm not sure there's a limit to how much I could eat), so I focus on local specialties whenever I can. Unless there's a food emergency, I never, ever visit an American chain I already know in another country, or even another city I'm exploring in the US. I'm actually a big fan of chains, but I don't consider that "travel".

Lunch is a great way to leverage the experience and save some money in the process. In many places, the lunch menu and the dinner menu are the same, but lots of downtowns compete by offering lunch specials that are local, delicious, and really cheap, sometimes a fraction of their price a few hours later.

At any restaurant, I try to order food that takes a long time to make, or uses ingredients I don't use at home, or requires a lot of work that I wouldn't do in my own kitchen.

When I'm traveling abroad, I never order a meal that's billed as American (and that rule often means that I don't order burgers) because they're never what you hope they'll be. I also try not to ask the server to change anything to make the meal more familiar to me. They'll ruin it. It won't even be as good as the standard meal that they were planning to serve you.

There's more, but I'll get to it as it comes up.